Stern Men, by Elizabeth Gilbert

This 2000 work is a remarkable first novel that I have heard little about. It recreates the life of lobstermen on two rival islands off the coast of Maine. It is particularly notable for its casual, underwritten style. And is further notable for breaking a traditional rule of fiction—show, don’t tell. For the novel begins by describing the history of the two islands, Fort Niles and Courne Haven, then the history of their local lobster industry, including life on the lobster boats, and continues by introducing the rivalry among families of the two islands. This creates the novel’s initial tension, as the lobstermen on Fort Niles are more independent, while those on Courne Haven are more collaborative.

The novel first introduces Mary Thomas, the mother of the novel’s main character, Ruth Thomas. Mary was “adopted” by the wealthy Ellis family on Fort Niles to serve as an aide to one of their daughters. But after Mary marries and has Ruth, she leaves the island and never returns. Ruth, who does not know why her mother has vanished, is taken in by the neighboring Pommeroys. But it is then decided that this girl be exposed “to something other than lobster fishermen, alcoholism, ignorance, and cold weather.” And so Ruth is sent away, against her will, to a private high school in Delaware with support from the Ellis family. Upon returning, however, as a determined and smart young woman, she insists that Fort Niles is her true home. And as she tells Mrs. Pommeroy, she will refuse to discuss with Mr. Lanford Ellis anything further about her future, because from now on, “I’m not going to do a single thing with my life that the Ellises want me to do. That’s my plan.”

She says this because she senses her life being overseen by the wealthy patriarch of Fort Niles, the elderly Mr. Ellis, who resides on the island only during the summer months. And she is not comfortable with her life being controlled by someone else. But what is she to do? She tries to ignore the possibility of becoming one of the stern men of the title, those uneducated youth of both islands who are able to earn a living only by the backbreaking work of dumping empty lobster traps into the ocean and then pulling them out weighted down with lobsters. (Stern in the title also suggests the attitude that these young island men need to survive their rough life, as well as deal, along with their captain, with the rival lobster boats from the other island.)

Nothing dramatic happens, however, among these lobster families to draw the reader into this book. What does so is the simple conversations that reveal their complex relationships. As a review in Mirabella says, “the novel is Emersonian in its clarity and Austenian in its sly social observations.”

So what does draw the reader on is the humanity of these islanders, and the relationships that develop even within their frequent rivalries. Plus, the author’s unobtrusive style. As a result, it is like dropping in on various colorful Maine characters, such as Ruth’s taciturn and rigid father Stan, called Greedy Number Two for the intensity of his lobster hauling; Angus Adams, her father’s crusty pal, called Greedy Number One; Simon Adams, called the Senator, who fears the ocean but wishes to establish a local museum of natural history; Rhonda Pommeroy, a widow and amateur beautician who takes in Ruth and is her best pal; and a persistent Cal Cooley, a toady to Mr. Ellis.

And so, it is the casual relationships among these interesting characters that draw the reader on. For example, it begins with the lobstermen of the two islands. The tension mounts when some drop their lobster traps into an area claimed by a lobsterman from the other island. After which the rivalries become personal.

Along with the wit of both the author and Ruth as they deal with these rivalries., our main curiosity is about whether this young woman will find her true vocation, and whether it will be on the island—or elsewhere, as Mr. Ellis seems to encourage. We have hopes for her, however, when she declares at one point, “Watch me! Watch me, world! Look out, baby!” She surely seems capable, if only she finds herself.

But the author introduces another level of reality, along with the mulishness of these Maine residents; and it is through her dialogue. For both men and women use scatological and irreverent exclamations that emphasize their homey, down-to-earth attitude, an attitude that reflects little value being given to education. Such as that which Ruth has received, with the aid of Mr. Ellis.

Moreover, the author also observes her characters, as I said, with a certain wit, and this helps to keep the reader at a distance. Which is not unlike how Ruth’s witty conversation often helps her to control her dealings with her flighty father, the supporting Mrs. Pomeroy, the persistent Cal Cooley, the imposing and elderly Lanford Ellis, and her rediscovered mother, as well as with the stubborn Senator Adams, the persistent and haughty pastor Toby Wishnell, and with his nephew Owney, in whom she sees the possibility of love—and another reason to remain on the island of Fort Niles.

Finally, in a strange Epilogue, Ruth achieves her dreams. I call it strange, because we do not follow her life as she achieves personal fulfillment. Presumably, the author feels she has already established the characteristics of Ruth that make this possible. And as a bonus, there is even a small surprise for the reader when Ruth agrees at last to meet the domineering Mr. Ellis to discuss not just the future, but their future.

Gilbert presents here the complexities of a simple life, and the fragility of depending on a single occupation. And fills these two islands with colorful characters whose narrow view of life limits them. Except, it does not limit Ruth, who is both smart and feisty. In fact, we see her as the hope of a new generation. And at the end of the novel, many islanders seem to realize this as well.

While the subject of Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love never drew me to that well-known work, I thoroughly enjoyed The Signature of All Things, and this first novel now makes me still more interested in Gilbert’s fiction. (August, 2019)

The Translator, by Ward Just

This 1991 work is not the novel I expected from this author. It is not about the Mid-West. And not about Washington, DC. Nor is it about the newspaper business. It is about being German, being a German after World War II. And it is excellent. It is a true literary work, as if Just sought not only to work outside his comfort zone but also to explore his subject matter to an even greater depth than previous, and also subsequent, work. As if there is a German heritage in the Just background.

This is the story of Sydney Van Damm. He is the translator. After a quick memory of growing up in northern Germany during the war and enduring the horror of Allied bombing raids, we learn he has rejected his homeland, even though his mother has warned that he would never escape his nationality. But he has fled to Paris, where he joins its expatriate world and soon meets and marries an American girl, Angie Dilion. He makes his living in Paris as a translator, working between English and German or French and German. He earns an excellent reputation, but he does struggle to earn the comfortable life that Angie is used to. He thus becomes open to renewing a friendship with Junko Poole, a former intelligence officer with an elusive reputation and no scruples, who is also living in Paris.

What makes this novel a literary work is that it is not driven by its plot, such as each new development in Sydney’s life. But it does engage the reader, by exploring the richness of each new experience. After Sydney marries Angie, their happiness is interrupted by tragedy, for they have a son, Max, who is brain-damaged, and they must adapt their lives to his. They live in an old Paris apartment house, where they also meet its various tenants, especially one German stewardess, Milda, and two others. These stewardesses enliven the setting through their adventures with Arab sheiks. He also meets for the first time a famous German author, Josef Kaus, whose work he has been translating. Indeed, to better understand the hero of Kaus’ current book, Sydney projects himself into the mind of Herr Hoerli, the German hero of that novel.

It is in Sydney’s memories of his mother, in his probing the mind of Herr Hoerli, and in heart-to-heart talks with both Milda and the novelist Kaus, that this expatriate translator engages in conversations that open up the exploration of the German character. How the war changed them, how they survived postwar poverty and then adapted to in the powerful economy that now flourishes around them in the late 1980s, whereupon how this has changed them, as well as how they have reacted to the freedom that now contrasts to the world of their German youth. Here is where Just truly explores the German character, the German psyche, each person seeing this new world differently but each one also revealing, despite the changes, how much they have in common.

Tying the novel together is the Van Damm family need for economic security, and the proposal of Junko Poole for a risky adventure that will resolve those economic needs. For me, it is the one artificial element of this novel, an element introduced by the author rather than by Junko himself. This is because the scheme is so nebulous. We know that material, or items, are to be shipped, without authorization, from one location to another, beginning in East Germany. But we do not know why they are being shipped, who has agreed to their being shipped, or even where it is being shipped from and where it is being shipped to. And this nebulousness is going to lead, for me, to a conclusion that is far from satisfying.

Despite this one caveat, I agree with the overall conclusion reached in the Detroit News and Free Press, that this novel “is a capricious and serious work—part love story, part political allegory….As the title indicates, it is a rumination on the nature of language, as well as that of national identity.”

Indeed, it is. It is an exploration of postwar Europe on one level and of the Parisian expatriate life on another. But it is also an exploration of the uses of language and of the different ways language is used by different cultures. And it is always focused on people, on their nationality, rather than on their politics, and on their struggle to survive more than on the economy they live in. And, of course, it is focused especially on individual Germans. On Sydney’s German mother who despises the Americanization of West Germany and flees to the comfort of her hometown in East Germany. As well as on the shady characters who arrive from the East. But it also compares, on the opposite shore, Angie’s father, who had inherited great wealth at home in Maine, but who has carelessly, incompetently, lost it, and who now wallows in self-pity.

And yet in the background is politics as well as people. Why does Sydney flee to Paris after the war, and turn to translation? Because he wants to escape the history of modern Germany. And he compares translation with his own move to a different culture; that is, “the moving of things from one condition to another; it was the same thing but changed utterly.” For that is what he wants, to escape from the German nationality, German politics, and especially his own history. And yet, inevitably, one cannot escape one’s past, one’s memories, nor, the author suggests, the tragedy that waits in the wings.

George Stade offers another summary of this novel in The New York Times. He says that Sydney and Angela “are also, after all, stand-ins for whatever in us is private, for that part of us that believes the matters of consequence in human life are family and work, for all in us that is threatened by the political waste that kills.” He also calls for an expression of hope, “though not because modern history warrants it.”

Yes, one wants to find more of Just’s work, more of these novels that immerse you in an interesting life in an interesting world. With the value of the work being in the interpretation of that life and that world, rather than in the events that these characters encounter, events that then sweep the reader along from one development to the next. (February, 2019)

There Your Heart Lies, by Mary Gordon

The heart of Marian Taylor, this novel’s heroine, lies in Spain. And that is what drew me to this 2017 novel. Because my heart lies there as well. But also being a fan of author Mary Gordon, I was doubly drawn to this novel.

This is the story of a 19-year old girl who flees her Irish Catholic family in 1937 to become a volunteer nurse for the Republican forces. While there, she falls in love and has a son, but is never accepted by her husband’s family after he tragically dies. And, as in much of Gordon’s work, there is a parallel story, the story of her granddaughter Amelia in the first decade of the 21st century. Marian is now dying, and Amelia wants to understand her Nene better, especially what she never talks about, those years in Spain.

And so, this novel, this tender novel, moves back and forth between Marion’s life in Spain of the 1930s and Amelia’s conversations with her grandmother in Rhode Island in 2009. Until, Amelia decides herself to go to Spain to resolve Nene’s differences with the son she had left behind.

As a girl, Marian rebelled against the faith of her deeply conservative Catholic family. She loved especially her brother Johnny, but was distraught when he was exposed as a homosexual and committed by his shamed Catholic parents to a hospital— whereupon, rather than suffer shock treatments, he kills himself. Still more distraught, Marian wants nothing to do with her family, and flees to Spain. With Johnny’s lover, Russell, a doctor. It is a fake marriage, but their relationship gives the novel its interesting start.

Their story takes off when Marian and Russell arrive in Spain in 1937. Gordon has done her research, and we truly feel we are there. We sense the tension among fatalist Republicans unsure of victory, more tension between anarchists and communists, still more among the hospital staff, and finally tension that prompts Russell to flee the hypocrisy around him.

When Russell returns to the States, Marian is assigned to a new hospital near Valencia, and the novel comes into its own. For Marian falls in love with a local doctor, Ramon Ortiz, and becomes pregnant. However, he contracts sepsis while operating and dies. She is then taken in by his unsympathetic family, whose purpose is to assume control of her son and then indoctrinate him in their own conservative beliefs.

Meanwhile, the novel is shifting between 1937 and 2009. In 2009, concerned about her dying grandmother, Amelia gets Marian to talk about her early family life. For the first time, we see what motivated her to run away to Spain. We get inside her. We see the family conflict that we have heard about, but we now experience it.

The novel alternates between Marion’s memories of growing up and the years in Spain, when she has the baby and Ortiz’ mother, Pilar, turns the town against her. The young mother was miserable—for seven years. Until, in an ironic stroke of luck, she falls and breaks her leg. For she then meets her half-Irish saviors, a woman doctor and her brother, a priest.

Now Gordon returns to the Spain of 1946, when Marian is recovering from her broken leg. The doctor, Isabel, and the brother, Tomas, help to restore Marian’s belief in humanity after her cruel treatment by the Ortiz family. And then, luckily, Marian falls in love again, with Theo, a visiting American artist who will help her escape back to the States.

The priest, Thomas, plays an interesting role in this novel. He is a sympathetic priest. Yes, he has committed one outrageous act of self-mutilization, but this only makes him more human. What is interesting is that Marian takes to him, even if she has lost her faith. Moreover, this novel, permeated by “bad” Catholics, from Marian’s parents to Franco’s followers, portrays him as a good person. It is Gordon, I think, acknowledging that Catholics can be bad or good depending on their sense of humanity rather than how they practice their faith. This sensitivity also foreshadows a later discussion about whether heaven exists, and whether Marian and Amelia will one day meet again. The Catholic perspective remains in Gordon’s purview.

But to return toTheo. He represents the one weakness in this book. We get to know him only briefly. And we learn even less about Naomi, his and Marian’s child and the mother of Amelia. Why? Because, I presume, this is the story of Marian and her granddaughter. But it does leave a hole in this family story. A full generation wide.

Just as the final chapter also leaves a gap. For Amelia returns to Spain, intent on bringing Marian and her Spanish child back together. Thus, creating a full circle. It is a marvelous, atmospheric passage, blending a modern impression and a distant past. But the outcome changes the entire atmosphere of this passage. And changes Amelia as well. Too much and too quickly. As Gordon makes this moment the key to Amelia’s future life.

Yes, there will be a final tender meeting between the dying Marian and the new Amelia, which is right for a novel that begins with the focus on Marian and ends with the focus on Amelia. But Amelia’s new view of life has not been given space to breathe. She now understands herself, she says. She can say yes and no to others. But will she, as she faces new challenges? We hear her declaration, but we do not see her in action. Is she now too hard-hearted? No, you say. For she believes in the afterlife. Well, yes…the possibility.

At least this novel is not hard-hearted. Yes, its story is pervaded by the hard-heartedness of the Catholic faith. But its main characters, minus Pilar, think and act according to the laws of charity. They balance the evils of humanity with the good. They seek to understand and to love other human beings. And these are precepts that Jesus taught, precepts that the Catholic Church still preaches. That Gordon has not forgotten.

And yet I am curious. Why does she otherwise offer such a negative view of the Catholic Church? Only because it fits her story? No, I shouldn’t say that, because Gordon’s novels often consider how the Church’s values conflict with our humanity. It is more, I think, that Gordon likes to develop her stories through contrast. Another type of contrast she uses, as here, is to create a relationship between two characters, such as Marian and Amelia, in order to dramatize the human condition. And again it works. (June, 2018)

Revival, by Stephen King

What I like about Stephen King is that he begins his novels in the real world. In this 2014 work, it is the world of six-year-old Jamie Morton who is a typical kid in a typical Maine family. There, he encounters Charles Jacobs, a local minister fascinated by electricity, but who will lose his faith and leave town when his wife and child die accidentally.

Jamie is the hero of this novel, and the narrator. We watch as he grows up amid his family and discovers that he lives in what is often a deceptive world. It is also a real world, however, and, as the boy matures, he struggles to make his way into that real world. When the author grounds him as a rhythm guitarist in a series or rock bands, it is not surprising. King has long created fictional heroes familiar with rock music. Music, however, is no longer just atmosphere; it is now his hero’s profession.

But this is not a novel about music; it is more a novel about faith. Or, rather, about the tensions between science and faith. And about how that tension can drive men’s actions. Until it becomes an obsession. And how clinging to that obsession can drive one man into searching for a world beyond reality. A man like Charles Jacobs.

As Jamie make his way through the musical world, he succumbs to the temptation of heroin. But he also tracks down the former minister and discovers he is a flim-flam man at carnivals, and is using electricity as a come on to attract an audience. And so, when Jamie collapses from his last dose, Jacobs is there to help. He even takes Jamie under his wing and uses that same strange electricity to cure him of his drug habit. Which puts Jamie in debt to him. But also plants in Jamie some kind of link.

After they separate, however, Jamie begins to suffer side effects. And when, later, he learns that Jacobs has become a famous preacher, touring the land, performing miracle cures, and growing rich, Jamie becomes curious. What is Jacobs up to? His doubts increase when he learns that some of the cures have produced terrible side effects in a few of those treated.

Up until then, Jamie has lead a normal life on the rock and roll fringes. There is nothing about the horror to come, only teasers about what Jacobs is up to. All we already know is that Jacobs has lost his faith in God after the accidental death in Maine of his wife and son, and that he is fascinated by the power of electricity.

But as he begins to learn about the violent side effects to Jacobs’ miracle cures, Jamie decides he must confront the man in behalf of all those he apparently helped. At their meeting, Jacobs explains he has given up curing people, because he has developed a powerful, new “secret electricity.” But he will explain no more. He even tries to hire Jamie, but Jamie declines, because he does not know Jacob’s end goal. He also sees that, in his intensity, Jacobs has taken on the aura of a mad scientist, although neither Jamie nor the reader understands where the events of this novel are headed.

But that madness does become obvious in the final chapters, when Jacobs contacts Jamie, knowing the power of that old spell. But what he says is that he needs Jamie’s help. First, to cure Astrid, an ex-lover of Jamie from his youth. And then to use his secret electricity to actually raise someone from the dead. King himself has said his inspiration, in part, was Frankenstein. And, indeed, the patient in the second case is named Mary, as in Shelley. Jacobs says he intends to revive her, and so learn what being dead is like. It is his way of defying the faith he has lost, and using the power of science to discover the meaning of death.

But, as in Frankenstein, and in many horror tales, the experiment gets out of control. Now, death itself enters their laboratory—and King goes overboard in depicting the afterlife. Indeed, he confronts the reader with the most terrible horror he can conceive. What if death were like this he is saying, perhaps even chuckling inside. It is as far from the world of reality, a world King himself has established in this novel, that one can get. But I see it more as King testing the waters of horror than rejecting any religious belief in paradise. He is a horror writer here, not a philosopher. He retains his only touch of reality with the implication that there are people who will use religion to achieve ignoble ends.

This novel is more successful for me when it is in the real world, the world of Jamie as a six-year old and growing up in Maine in a loving family, then as an adolescent fascinated by sex with Astrid, and then succumbing to drugs as he makes his way into the world of rock. There are hints of miracle cures to come, but at first Jacobs is just feeling his way toward achieving them. King is so good at reality, at day-to-day life, at family relationships, that the reader is committed to his world—even as he suspects that King is leading him toward something…unworldly, perhaps even…awful.

Of course, when it comes, the fictional world of Jamie’s Maine that had so enthralled us vanishes. Instead, the revelation of the horror of the afterlife takes us beyond the world of reality. It is a world that reeks, even, of absurdity. Moreover, King needs a final chapter to explain what has followed that moment of horror—with its visions, its monster, its screaming, and its gunshots. And what has happened to Jamie as a result. But that chapter is a crutch too many author use to justify the sins of their imagination.

On finishing this novel, my message to Stephen King is to abandon the physical reality of horror. To, instead, create a reality that carries an implication of horror, like a dome or a time machine, or else to create the horror within the mind of his main character. If the reader has identified with that character, then that should be enough.

However, I have long thought that King could write a serious literary novel, if he wished. This novel could be a beautiful story of growing up. Why is he so attached to the horror genre? To please his audience? Surely, he has earned enough. Does he lack the confidence of such an attempt? Or is the interest simply not there? Because he has the literary tools. And he understands the whims and desires and fears of people. Ah, well, I have three more of his genre novels on my shelves. I must learn to be patient. (June, 2018)

Leaving Home, by Arthur Cavanaugh

This is an old-fashioned novel from 1970. It begins beautifully with a prologue that describes a cemetery scene and a subsequent repast at the Connerty family home in Brooklyn. These events are narrated by Robbie Connerty, the family’s youngest child. He will then recall for the reader his family history, which will become the main body of the book. We will learn how this family survived the Depression, World War II, and the travails typical of a lower middle-class family. But before he begins that story Robbie reveals that he harbors a secret—he does not say what it is—that has troubled him his entire life. And we deduce that he is recalling both the happy and sad events in his family’s history in order to relieve himself of a sense of guilt that he has carried with him his entire life.

The chapters that follow cover distinct periods of Robbie’s life, from the uncertainty of youth, to a sense of responsibility when his mother contracts tuberculosis, to his brief flirtation with art, to his growing understanding of family life and family love, to his eventual decision to become a writer, and finally to his discovery of love and marriage. These various narrations also deepen his relationships with his parents and his siblings as his family struggles to survive in the era’s floundering economy.

But while these events concern the same characters, they are often disconnected. Thus, many chapters reach their own conclusion, rather than lead to developments in the next chapter. As a result, this novel does not flow naturally. Which may explains how most chapters originally appeared separately in women’s magazines in the 1960s. What is not clear is how much these chapters were planned as separate short stories, and how much they were planned as continuing chapters in a novel. That is, were financial concerns behind publishing so many of these chapters originally as short stories. One reason that they probably appeared in such magazines, however, is that readers could identify with the mother, Catherine, who is the most deeply drawn character and is at the heart of most family decisions.

One also wonders how much this novel may be autobiographical. It certainly reads as such, and, as Cavanaugh states at the beginning, Catherine “was” his own mother. But it is his third novel, whereas autobiographical works are usually an author’s first or second novel. I lean toward autobiography, however, because the Brooklyn atmosphere is so deeply felt, and because the family relationships are so carefully rendered. And after all, it is the story of one life, Robbie’s, as well as the story of a family, that rings so true here. Moreover, if events in one chapter do not lead to the next, is this not how life is truly lived, even if not how novels are usually constructed.

Of course, these chapters do work as separate entities. There is a chapter on Robbie’s failure to climb a wall to prove himself. There is a chapter on his fights with his sister Roseanne, and another on their reconciliation, and still another on her departure to train as a missionary. There is a chapter on Hanna, a cleaning lady whom the family loves. There are chapters on his mother leaving home for a sanitarium upstate to recover from tuberculosis, and more chapters on how the family survives without her, such as planning for Christmas, and then, in another chapter, on preparing for her return. Not to forget a chapter on Robbie’s Aunt Tillie, who is the first to fill Robbie’s life with art. Or chapters on Robbie’s awareness of death, and then the discovery of love by brothers Daniel and Vinnie, as well as that of his other sister, Margaret. There are, finally, chapters on Robbie meeting his wife, on their marriage, and then on his impending fatherhood

Robbie’s secret, however, does not flow naturally to the surface. Indeed, when it is resurrected in a dramatic scene at the end. It seems rather arbitrary to me, as if the author sees it as the time to reveal the key to Robbie’s character. The secret concerns whether or not Robbie, the youngest child, has been wanted by his parents, and his doubts about it. And the justification of his doubts lies in a collection of photographs, which are resurrected just in time for the novel’s conclusion. But I do grant that the scene in which he discusses his doubts with his mother is indeed moving. It might even be the final scene in the book. For there is a sense of completion in this mother and son discussion that rounds off both their characters.

But the author follows this with an emotional bookend, with a return to the funeral repast for his mother. And we witness these grown children departing the family home in order to return to their own separate lives. This scene is quite moving as well, as we sense the separation that every family endures, when its members return to their own lives after many years as a close family unit.

Julian Moynahan closes his 1970 review with these words: “It takes the hand of an artist in remembrance like Robbie—that is, like Arthur Cavanaugh—to keep time at bay and the miracle intact through the registrations of a narrative art that is always faithful to historical detail and the integrity of persons, and draws its finest energies from love and a deeply felt acceptance of the inevitability of death.”

These comments indeed reflect the intent of the author, and are also belong to the era in which the reviewer wrote them. But I have called this an old-fashioned novel, because I do not believe such qualities are celebrated today. Or, rather, accepted as ideal elements in a literary work. Few literary stalwarts write today of family love, of family integrity, of a family’s acceptance of poverty and death. And critics also do not accept today obvious symbols—like a collection of photographs, particularly when they so blatantly rise to the surface, in this case fortuitously from beneath a blanket in the Connerty basement.

I was drawn to this novel because this family is both Irish and Catholic. But if their nationality is evoked here, their religion is not. And so as deeply as this family experience is felt, it is missing a spiritual element, and does not encourage me to seek out further Cavanaugh novels. They belong to a different era. Today I prefer novels that explore the heart and the soul’s inner life. And certainly not one where the absence of photographs raises a character’s internal doubts. (May, 2018)

The Ninth Hour, by Alice McDermott

This tender novel works on two levels. It is the story of a Catholic family, of mother Annie and daughter Sally, as they each seek happiness after the loss of husband and father. It is also the story of an order of Catholic nuns, featuring Sister Lucy and Sister Jeanne as they take over from the elderly Sister St. Saviour. And within both stories is an awareness of death, along with a striving for happiness in one’s life.

The emotions that carry this novel belong to the family story, as wife and daughter seek to overcome the disgrace of a suicide. The richness that fills this novel comes from the spiritual life of the nuns, and the sacrifices they make to care for others. These literary qualities join when both the family and the nuns confront death as the inevitable human destiny.

And yet the telling of these two stories does lack cohesion. The action does not flow from one chapter into the next. Instead, each chapter isolates a separate stage in the family story. After a harrowing opening scene of suicide, the narrative settles on the funeral arrangements, with the issue of whether a suicide can be buried in hallowed ground and the reaction of these nuns who are more open-minded then doctrinaire.

Then follow separate chapters that introduce a widow’s love affair, life in the nuns’ laundry room, the pain of a sick and dying woman, then a disillusioning train ride, followed by the funeral of a figure from the past, then a return to the sick invalid. Each chapter is beautifully written, but each is self-contained and could stand on its own as a short story. (One does appear in The New Yorker.) The continuity stems from daughter Sally’s thinking: whether or not she should join these sisters whose dedication to the unfortunate she has been exposed to.

Contributing also to the lack of cohesion are interruptions in the narrative, which suggest we are being told this family story by a character who does not exist in the novel. Every so often, that is, this narrator jumps into the third person narrative, and refers to “my mother, or “my father.” And we realize that this narrator is a child of the daughter Sally. A child who, as I said, never appears. Why is this person present? What is his or her purpose? It is conceivable that Sally, as mother, may have told this figure much of her own thinking, but certainly not that of the nuns or the other characters.

The ending also may be problematic for some. It introduces a death, a death which may be natural, but there is a suggestion that it has been triggered by one of the characters. The author does not say this, but she does leave us with the strong possibility. And it is also in keeping with the human motivations of these characters. The closest the author comes to stating this is when one character talks of heaven. “Out of love, I lost it. Which sounds funny, doesn’t it. You’d think you could only lose heaven out of hate.” And later: “But you’ll pray for me, won’t you…You’ll pray for this lost soul.”

It is the presence of life’s spiritual frame of reference that provides the strength of this novel. The actions of all these characters, even of the nuns, are human actions, but there are consequences to those actions, consequences that originate in the religious convictions that govern the Irish society to which these characters belong. The primary conviction is that the meaning of human life is not limited to the physical world, but is found, more significantly, in the spiritual world. And the conflict between these two worlds is introduced from the start of the novel, when a nun and a bishop debate whether a suicide can be buried in consecrated ground. It is also reflected in the novel’s title, for the ninth hour becomes the time for both the nun’s mid-afternoon prayers and the love affair of a lonely woman.

But what lends this novel its substance is that all its nuns realize that their daily lives are circumscribed by a physical, humanistic world. And that they must adjust their spiritual decisions accordingly. Which means that they lean toward practical considerations. And lean quite far, if one woman’s confession is to be believed.

The order these nuns belong to is The Little Sisters off the Sick Poor. So the richness of the novel also stems from the lives of the poor victims that these nuns encounter. Which highlights both the physical needs the nuns fulfill and the spiritual motives that inspire them. That is, they serve both worlds. And yet there is also that tension between these worlds, illustrated when Sally rejects a spiritual vocation after being confronted by the world of reality on her train ride. As well as, later, when both she and a nun conclude that enabling love, enabling a physical affair, is justified, even though it would deny them their spiritual destiny.

It is this coexistence between the physical world and the spiritual world that characterizes much of McDermott’s work. But with this probing of the nun’s world, perhaps an inevitable extension of the Irish culture, she has raised her explorations to a new level. She has kept the family environment, with its Irish culture, and here the Irish shame of suicide, but also made a family’s spiritual considerations more tangible by introducing the nun’s worldly perspective.

If only she had offered smoother transitions between the two worlds. Had told the story through a decade or two of one generation (Sally’s), instead of through two generations, with the suggestion of a third. Had made her witness of her mother’s love affair even more central to the conflict between the two worlds. (Or would that have veered too much toward melodrama?) Because I see a richness in the many considerations that Sally was faced with, especially the wall of innocence both the nuns and her mother had built around this young girl.

Overall, this does not reach the heights of McDermott’s better novels. But I do give her credit for exploring more deeply its spiritual dimension, not always an easy assignment. (March, 2018)

Miller’s Valley, by Anna Quindlen

I have long liked Quindlen’s work, but this 2016 novel is a disappointment. It is about the Miller family, whose ancestors founded a Pennsylvania farm village named after them. The story is also about this village and its future, and is narrated by Mimi Miller, whom we first meet as a child in the 1960s. Unfortunately, her family appears to be an ordinary one, with its typical loyalties and typical disputes, typical silences and typical black sheep. And its members rarely impact one another or the world about them. Instead, they let things happen, from accidents to strokes, from being seduced to refusing to challenge others. And, above all, they never resist the major change the government plans to make in their lives.

The government has announced that the Pennsylvania valley where they live is to be flooded, that a dam is to be built for flood control, as well as to create both a new source of energy and a recreational area. The title suggests that the flooding of this farmland is to be the underlying theme that ties this novel together. But it does so only at the end. For most of the novel, this work is about the Miller family; and, as I said, this family, especially Mimi, mainly reacts to the events around them.

The structure of the novel follows Mimi, from her school days and school crushes, to a long affair and a desperate abortion, to a casual scholarship recommendation and the casual return of a lost love. She has to deal with her farmer father, Buddy, also the town handyman; her close-mouthed but wise mother, Miriam; her rebellious brother, Tommy; and her recluse aunt, Ruth. But while we learn a lot about this family, there is little conflict among them to draw the reader on.

In addition, there is a girl friend LaRhonda, who simply fades from Mimi’s life after high school. And there is also Winston Bally, who represents the government threat and is rather obnoxious; but he is eventually disposed of quite casually—and maybe ironically in the author’s mind. Perhaps Mimi’s mother is the most interesting character, because of her mysterious dislike of Ruth, but even more because she recognizes that her daughter must escape this town if she is to fulfill her potential.

In the foreground, meanwhile, Mimi is simply reacting to the people and the events around her, especially to her troubled brother Tommy. She herself does not strive to create her own future. It is the author who moves the reader on to the next stage in her life, rather than Mimi herself who does so. Such as not knowing her future, until a teacher sits her down and points to a scholarships to the University of Pennsylvania and then to its medical school. Such as delaying her career when her father suffers a stroke. Such as being pursued by the seductive Steve, and, later, tracked down by a man, Donald, who long ago faded from her life.

My reaction to this novel is opposite to my recent view of Prince Edward, by Dennis McFarland. There, I was very involved in narrator Ben’s family life (and note the similar structure of that family and this one). But I was not drawn into the local government’s resistance to desegregating its schools. Whereas, here, I was not at all interested in Mimi and her family, but was hoping there would be more involvement between her family and the government’s plans to flood their valley. One does wonder if the author deliberately made Mimi’a family so passive regarding the threatened flooding, intending it to reflect Mimi’s own passivity in her personal life. Or perhaps vice versa. In any event, passivity does not bring conflict; and that, for, me is the key to keeping a reader interested in a novel.

Quindlen does write an interesting ending, a poetic ending, a kind of summing up of these characters’ feelings about their land and their valley. I wish I had felt some of that emotion earlier, however, as the threat of the dam filled more and more of their future landscape. Yes, it is natural to feel helpless against the plans of the government, but that means there is no story, when no one is fighting the government’s decision. Instead, we have the passive Mimi, who mainly worries about, but does little to help, the rebellious Tommy. And he is fighting not the government but his own demons. Indeed, his story almost belongs to another novel.

There is also a tiny surprise toward the end. We learn why Ruth has been such a recluse. And it explains the actions of certain people in the family. But it has no broad repercussions on the life of Mimi or anyone else. Indeed, Mimi discovers the secret almost accidentally, and does not allow it to alter her opinions about anyone in her family. While the reader achieves a brief “aha” moment, and then moves on. It is merely the high point in a final chapter that rounds up these people’s lives, especially Mimi’s—a roundup that many authors think their work needs.

I should note that my response to this novel is completely opposite to that of Caroline Leavitt in the New York Times Book Review. She called the novel “mesmerizing,” and the characters “richly alive.” Which only goes to show how subjective book reviewing can be. Usually, I like novels in which a mature character narrates his or her youthful experiences, and how those experiences helped that person grow into maturity. But I did not find that here, as I have explained. Usually, I also enjoy reading fiction about a disappearing way of life. But I also did not experience that here. In part, because the threat was in the background for much of the book. As if the author was torn between two stories. One, about a family; and the other, about a change in their way of life. I simply think she did not sufficiently merge the two—although other critics have thought that she did.

This does not turn me away from future Quindlen novels, but I do hope she returns to family rivalries, family disputes, and stories of inner turmoil, rather than to sociologically significant subjects. Novels should be about people, and about their interaction with society, yes, but about what is happening in society only through their own personal stories. (May, 2017)